Abortion clinic calls for protester exclusion zones

Julia Medew

October 18, 2010

THE East Melbourne abortion clinic where a security guard was murdered nine years ago has called for the Victorian government to create exclusion zones around all such clinics to prevent protesters from harassing patients and staff.

A psychologist who works at the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne, Dr Susie Allanson, said that since abortion was decriminalised in 2008, protesters from The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants had continued to hound people as they entered and left her workplace on Wellington Parade.

She said clinic staff had called the police and Melbourne City Council almost daily to respond to complaints about the protesters, who thrust pamphlets at patients while telling them not to kill their babies.

”Sometimes patients are in tears when they come in and we’ve had a partner [of a patient] assault one of them once because he felt so threatened,” Dr Allanson said.

The protesters also seemed to attract mentally ill people, Dr Allanson said, increasing fear within the clinic.

”They attract all sorts of unbalanced individuals. The gunman who killed our security guard in 2001 stood with them on a couple of occasions and their rhetoric about us being murderers just gives rationale for them to take the next step,” she said.

A spokesman for the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, Ben O’Brien, said his group had not harassed anyone, and that many women had benefited from the group’s presence outside the clinic for many years.

He said he did not know of any protesters who would cause people to feel unsafe and that the call for an exclusion zone was unwarranted.

”This is a threat to people’s freedom,” he said.

Three years ago, the Melbourne City Council agreed to use its bylaws to fine protesters who harassed women outside the clinic, but Dr Allanson said it had not deterred the protesters.

She said it was time to create an exclusion zone around the clinic and others across the state to balance people’s rights.

The call follows a recommendation from the Victorian Law Reform Commission in 2008 for the state government to consider a legislative response to the issue.

Dr Allanson said various government departments and ministers had also indicated to her before abortion was decriminalised that the issue of protesters would have to wait until the law had changed.

”All we want is for the protesters to be moved to the other side of Wellington Parade so they can still protest but they’re not in women’s faces … The authorities are totally privileging these people’s right to protest over women’s privacy and their right to feel safe and to not be harassed,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the government would not comment on whether it was considering exclusion zones for abortion clinics and said protesters in East Melbourne were a local government issue.

”These are very contentious issues but every Victorian, regardless of their viewpoint, should be treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the Melbourne City Council said it had no power to move people conducting peaceful protests.

She said council officers had attended the Fertility Control Clinic regularly for several years and had issued ”numerous warnings” to the protesters, asking them to voluntarily comply with the law.

Two infringements had also been issued outside the clinic in recent weeks, she said, for the persistent use of an unauthorised sign.